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Chicago schools set to cancel classes Monday as standoff with teachers union continues

The Chicago public school district announced Friday that classes had been cancelled Monday, barring a breakthrough in weekend negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union.

CHICAGO (CN) — There will likely be no classes for Chicago Public School students on Monday, according to a school district spokesperson. Though negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union continued Friday over the district's readiness to return to in-person teaching, no deal had been reached by the end of the workday.

A statement from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's office said negotiations would continue into the weekend. If no deal is reached, Monday will be the fourth consecutive day that students are out of class.

"Bargaining sessions continued today and went into the evening. The sessions remain productive but must be concluded this weekend," the statement read.

A separate statement sent to district principals Friday evening, obtained by CBS Chicago, said that the decision to cancel classes Monday may be reversed if a deal is struck between the union and the teachers.

The standoff between Lightfoot, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union comes down to a disagreement over whether the district can safely resume in-person classes amid the most prolific Covid-19 surge in the pandemic to date. Since New Year's Day, the Chicago Public Health Department reported an average of over 1,200 new Covid-19 cases per day in patients younger than 17, the most of any age cohort in the city.

Pediatric cases since New Year's Day peaked on Monday, Jan. 3 — the day public school students reported back to their classrooms following winter break.

Despite this, district leadership and City Hall have repeatedly insisted that classrooms can safely re-open. The majority consensus among CTU members, citing a lack of testing, masks and sanitation, is that they cannot. On Tuesday night, 73% of union members voted to buck the district's plan to return to in-person teaching for the spring term, and stick to a remote-only teaching plan.

The dispute has turned caustic since the Tuesday night vote. On Wednesday night, Lightfoot said she had filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the union, and went so far as to encourage members to scab and return to work on Friday. For those members that stuck with the union, she threatened to withhold pay for what she called an "unlawful, unilateral strike."

"We will not pay you for an unlawful, unilateral strike," Lightfoot said Wednesday, speaking directly to CTU members. "We will not pay you to abandon your post and your children at a time when they and their families need us most."

The CTU shot back at Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez just as forcefully over the week, condemning what they claimed was the city leaders' disregard for teachers' and students' safety. In a Wednesday statement, the union said it had filed its own unfair labor practice complaint against the Chicago Board of Education over that disregard.

"[Lightfoot and CPS leadership] falsely claim that we’re engaging in an illegal strike, when we WANT to teach but can’t because they’ve locked us out. We have rights to safety and we’ve been at the bargaining table for 20 months to secure those rights," the Wednesday statement read.

Since Tuesday, CTU educators and staff have also insisted that they are not striking; that they want to teach, if remotely. The union instead lays the blame for the class cancellations at the feet of Lightfoot and the school district for locking teachers out of their remote learning platforms. CTU members even coined the hashtag #LoriLockout on Twitter to protest their inability to do remote work.

"I didn't choose to stop working. I've been trying to log in, to teach remotely at home," CTU Elementary school teacher Falin Johnson said in a Friday evening press conference.

Criticism against Lightfoot and Martinez has also begun to emerge from other corners. On Thursday night the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association issued a statement criticizing what it called CEO Martinez' "offensive and unsafe" decisions. The statement particularly condemned Martinez' comments in a Wednesday night press conference, in which he remained non-committal on the question of Friday class cancellations.

He told reporters that the range of school services offered Friday would depend on the availability of staff at each particular school, and it was only after the press conference that CPS confirmed district-wide class cancellation on Friday.

"During a Wednesday Press conference, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez told reporters–and later parents–that principals in individual schools will decide whether students can return to schools for in-person learning or enrichment based on the resources and staffing available to them. This is a districtwide crisis and we need a districtwide strategy." the statement read. "It should not be an ad hoc reactionary response that creates inequities that are predictable among social and economic lines."

The criticism only deepened when the Springfield-based political blog Capitol Fax claimed Friday that the city had not accepted the state's offer of aid in the form of vaccine clinics, testing equipment and face mases for several weeks.

"I... asked what state help Pritzker had directly offered CPS. I was told the state had offered SHIELD tests, vaccination clinics and masks for the past several weeks," Capitol Fax author Rich Miller wrote Friday. "The city has not yet taken the state up on those offers."

Neither CPS nor the mayor's office responded to requests for comment on this allegation.

CTU, however, pounced on the news.

"Riddle me this, Madame Mayor," CTU teacher Briana Hambright-Hall said Friday. "If the state... is asking you if you need support, with testing, clinics, PPE materials, asking you whatever, why are you not responding? It sounds like it's kind of personal to me. Who are you trying to hurt? Because at this point it seems like you are really trying to hurt the students."

CTU President Jesse Sharkey has previously said that he hopes students can return to the classroom by Jan. 18. To do so, the union is demanding that all students test negative before returning to classes, that schools shift to remote learning when 20% or more of their staff is in Covid-19 isolation, and that students submit to regular mandatory testing that parents would have to opt out of, not in to.

Though Mayor Lightfoot called this last demand "morally repugnant" and said it would open the city up to lawsuits, the union pointed out Friday that less than 30% of the district's students aged 5-11 had been vaccinated by mid-December. Among young Black students, that figure dropped to just 14%.

"We're asking for testing, we're asking for proper contract tracing... that's all we're asking for," CTU special education teacher Dawn Kelly said Friday. "We want to be safe. We want to work."

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